The ringing voice bounced off the walls, while the men in gray jump suits squirmed to find comfort in their chairs

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The ringing voice bounced off the walls, while the men in gray jump suits squirmed to find comfort in their chairs.

"From the mountains," the man began to sing. "To the prairies. To the oceans, white from foam."

Shuffling, in the crowd, some stared in amusement, while others traded glances of confusion. As the man continued, he was unphased, wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt, bringing the comfort of a living room into the closed baron walls of the prison auditorium. The sweet aroma of mashed potatoes, colored greens and gravy was in the air as Thanksgiving was approaching.

"Stand beside her," the man continued. "And guide her through the night with light from above."

Getting to the chorus, and finally the finish of "God Bless America," the Putnamville Correctional Facility stood in ovation, as the man lowered the microphone. Ken Johnson, Indianapolis Colts' Chaplain, visiting the prison for an inspirational speech Tuesday, made his introduction with the song. It was a theme throughout the sermon, as what followed was a heart-felt sermon in which Johnson and former inmate Byron Alston reached out their hands, offering their help, advice and compassion to the inmates.

"Choose to better. We are not born winners. We are not born losers," Johnson said to the crowd of more than 300 inmates. "We're born choosers. And every choice that we make has a positive and negative effect."

More than 300 convicted offenders from nine different dorms were chosen to listen to Johnson and Alston speak.

After spending more than 16 years in the Putnamville Correctional Facility, Alston returned as a free man, offering proof to inmates that they can succeed in the outside world.

In the inside, he was known as "low-down," and ran with the toughest crew in the prison.

"I've been in every joint in the state of Indiana," he said.

But on the outside he runs an Indianapolis youth center, drives a $100,000 car to work and goes home to a $200,000 house.

"I don't wear the same suit twice. You won't ever see this again," Alston said, pointing to his suit.

The transformation of Alston is a result of Johnson's work - an Indianapolis minister committed to making a difference in people's lives. While in prison, Alston heard about Johnson, got in touch with him and asked him for help. With the help of Johnson, Alston started first working the local car wash, and eventually worked his way up and made it back on his feet.

He is a testament to dedication.

"We can achieve anything," he said. "You can do anything you want to do."

Like Alston, Johnson also came from the bottom. Born in a broken family, his mom was a prostitute and his dad was a heroin addict. He suffered from Attention Defecit Disorder and had a learning disability.

"They said I would never amount to anything," Johnson said.

Now, Johnson is paid to offer his advice on living life, and continues to touch people like Alston every single day. He is paid to console the Indianapolis Colts' players, leading people who are making millions upon millions of dollars to play a game.

"Be an eagle not a chicken," Johnson said. "Every day you have a choice to fly high or cluck low. Excellence versus mediocrity, it's your choice."

It was a common theme of the night, as Johnson used the metaphor to articulate his message throughout the speech. He referred to the eagle as "soaring," while others can just look in admiration. Spreading its wings, it sees no boundaries.

Johnson spoke of current football players of the day, such as wide receiver Terell Owens. Owens is facing a season-long suspension from the Philadelphia Eagles, after criticizing the organization for not celebrating his 100th touchdown reception, among other infractions.

"Think about a brother like Terrell Owens - tremendous, gifted athlete, making millions of dollars," Johnson said. "(He is) crying because they didn't celebrate him for scoring a touchdown. That's what they pay him to do."

It was a unique atmosphere, as people of all ages and races sat in the auditorium, attentive and quiet throughout. Johnson played Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech" and music of all types to further express certain points.

Even Indianapolis Colts' Head Coach Tony Dungy had a taped message delivered to the crowd of inmates, comparing their struggles to being down in the first half of a football game.

"There's really two ways to respond to it," Dungy said. "You can look to the third and fourth quarters, and make your halftime adjustments to win the game. Or you can say it's just not my day, this is a game that we're going to lose. You don't have to be a loser.

"With the help of the Lord, hard work and determination, you can have a winning situation, even if it looks like you've been behind the whole game," he continued.

Johnson and Alston finished by offering their services. As Alston left he repeatedly offered his cell phone number to the crowd.

"I like to help brothers when they come out," Alston said. "I don't want your money. I don't want nothing. I just want to know you want to change."

After all he was helped by Johnson. And all Johnson wanted in return was for Alston to help someone else.

"If you come to Indianapolis, and you really want some help, call me," he said. "If I tell you I'm going to help you, I'll help you. Because somebody helped me, and I made the promise that I'm going to help somebody else."

In a day full of hope, perhaps Alston's last words clarified the message best.

"God bless you," he said. "Keep your head up. There's a bright day ahead."

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